Showing posts with label Agatha Christie. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Agatha Christie. Show all posts

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Poirot Project: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (review)


This post is part of my 2016-19 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Case of the Missing Will’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The fifth episode of the fifth series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 14th February 1993… almost exactly 26 years ago… how time flies! The episode was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in The Sketch on 24th October 1923. And it’s a corker of an episode.

But let’s talk about Christie’s short story first…

Have you ever thought that Poirot and Hastings’s relationship is a bit too… well… close? Or rather, a bit closed off? While they’re obviously very good friends, and each has the occasional acquaintance who pops up in a story, they don’t really do much socializing with people outside their little duo. Almost all the people they spend time with are clients or suspects. The only person they repeatedly refer to as a friend is Japp, and he’s more a work colleague. They just don’t seem to have any relationships that aren’t formal or professional.
‘Poirot and I had many friends and acquaintances of an informal nature.’
Oops… sorry, Hastings. My bad.

I can’t decide whether this abrupt opening is defensive or lazy. It’s a pretty heavy-handed way to set the scene, either way. The point is, Hastings and Poirot are hanging out with one of the many, many friends – a Dr Hawker – when their evening party (yes, the pair are definitely living together in this one) is interrupted by a ‘distracted female’:
‘Oh, doctor, you’re wanted! Such a terrible voice. It gave me a turn, it did indeed.’
The distracted female is Dr Hawker, and the terrible voice was that of Hawker’s patient, one Count Foscatini, who was calling to beg for help after an attack. Hawker, Poirot and Hastings hurry to Foscatini’s flat and discover the man has been murdered. They investigate, and then call in their ‘Scotland Yard friend, Inspector Japp’ to wrap things up. (Japp proceeds to arrest the wrong guy, by the way.)

‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’ is an interesting story for two reasons (in addition to Hastings’s weird compulsion to point out how many friends he and Poirot have). Firstly, it continues Christie’s minor fascination with fancy new-build and serviced apartments. This was first seen in ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ and would be seen again in ‘The Third Floor Flat’. (Don’t be confused here… the order of publication is different to the order of adaptation.)

In ‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ and ‘The Third Floor Flat’ the stories include details of modern design features, particularly fancy-pants dustbin storage and service staircases. In ‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’, Foscatini lives in a full-blown new-fangled serviced apartment:
‘Regent’s Court was a new block of flats, situated just off St John’s Wood Road. They had only recently been built, and contained the latest service devices.’
Christie’s mild fascination with serviced apartments and their thoroughly modern mechanisms for murder inspired a bit of a mild fascination in me when I first saw these episodes. However, I’ll admit I don’t know a huge amount about the history of this type of building. Wikipedia tells me that ‘Regent’s Court’ in this story was fictional, so I have to assume it isn’t related to the current ‘Regent Court’ portered apartment building near St John’s Road – the proximity to Regent’s Park explains the similarity of names between the fictional and real-life buildings. Nevertheless, Christie didn’t invent the concept of a ‘new block of flats’ with ‘the latest service devices’.

Doing internet searches for the history of ‘serviced apartments in London’ is a bit tricky, as we seem to be going through a bit of a serviced apartments renaissance (flats like those in Regent Court, which have a porter service and function as a sort of vertical gated community). But I have found a few little interesting nuggets of information…

The type of apartment inhabited by Count Foscatini experience a brief boom in popularity in the 1920s and 30s. I can’t remember where I read this (so no footnote I’m afraid), but some have put this popularity down to the changing fortunes of the upper classes. After WWI, it became increasingly difficult for rich men to staff a house with live-in servants – and, in some cases, to run a large house at all – and so a smaller, more modern residence with a permanent staff must have appealed. While some residents of these apartment blocks might have a single live-in (e.g. Mrs Grant in ‘The Third Floor Flat’ has a maid, and Poirot himself will take valet George with him when he moves to Whitehaven Mansions), the main work of the building is done by a shared staff who look after the needs of all residents.

One of the earliest examples of this arrangement I’ve been able to find is St James’s Court (now St James’s Hotel) on Park Place. This building – it is claimed – open in 1892 as a block of 44 serviced flats. It described itself as a ‘gentleman’s chamber’, suggesting it was somewhere between a pied-à-terre and a gentleman’s club. Presumably, many of the impossibly posh blokes who owned/rented the flats (like David Cameron’s great-great-grandfather-in-law, for example) would have a ‘primary’ or ‘country’ residence elsewhere.

I don’t think St James’s Court is quite indicative of the type of flats Christie is using in her stories, though. Her apartment blocks tend to be inhabited by wealthy professionals and bright young things, rather than the landed gentry. Prospective tenants are young married couples, single women, consulting detectives and blackmailers, and the flats will be the primary residence for the inhabitants. By the 20s and 30s, these new apartment blocks were accommodating a wave of fashionable city centre living, where the wealthy urbanistas increasingly rely on staff rather than servants (note that Regent’s Court in this story employs a ‘chef’ and not a ‘cook’). Guy Morgan’s Florin Court (built in 1936) and William Bryce Binnie’s Addisland Court (also 1936) are surviving examples of later art deco-designed blocks. Claire Bennie makes this comment on her website London Deco Flats:
‘What these wonderful 1930s buildings remind us is that there used to be a particular kind of tenant, on a medium income, who demanded porterage, parking, perhaps a maid, and sometimes dining and sports facilities.’
The descriptions of city flats in Christie’s earlier stories suggests that the ‘particular kind of tenant’ was also in the market for rented housing in the 1920s. That’s as much as I know about serviced apartments, and I’m sure I’ve probably made some horrible errors in my summary. Please – please – if you have more info on this specific bit of British housing history, let me know. I’ve been interested in this type of flat since February 1993, so I’d love a reading list!

Now… back to the story… and the second reason ‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’ is interesting. I’ve gone on a bit already, but I reckon I can sum this one up a bit more quickly…


When Poirot and Hastings arrive at Regent’s Court, they discover Count Foscatini’s valet-butler Graves, who, like many a helpful and deferential servant in Golden Age fiction, gives the detective a careful and thorough outline of his employer’s movements and visitors. He describes the gentlemen who called to see his master the previous day, the dinner that was served on the evening of the murder, and a simple overview of his master’s entertaining habits. Graves explains that he served a meal to his master and guests, and then was given the evening off. He went out at 8.30pm and returned just in time to find Poirot poring over the body of his erstwhile employer.

Graves’s evidence is standard. This is how servants are used in so much Golden Age detective fiction – they’re essentially depersonalised narrators of the ‘background’ events of the case. They give neutral evidence of the household’s comings and goings, the timings of meals, the layout and security arrangements of the building. In these cases, the word of the servant is taken as a matter of fact, because the staff are simply plot devices to convey the material situation in which the murder has taken place. At times, a detective like Poirot might be able to push a servant to speculate, gossip or reveal a secret they are not supposed to know but, again, this almost always taken as a matter of fact.

Now, sometimes, a servant might have a secret of their own. They may be guilty of a crime – fiddling the household accounts, for instance, or colluding with some wrong ’un from outside the household. They may not be who they claim to be, or they may have falsified their references, but they are never seriously in the frame for the murder.

The whole point of Golden Age detective fiction is that the murderer represents the dark heart of the domestic set-up. It’s the spouse, the child, the parent, the family doctor. The call is coming from inside the house.

Agatha Christie does love playing tricks though. In ‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’, she assumes that we assume that the valet-butler’s evidence is neutral evidence, a statement of fact. It’s enough for Hastings and Japp, who take everything Graves says at face value, leading to the hunt for Foscatini’s dinner guest and the erroneous arrest of Ascanio.

It’s not enough for Poirot (naturally):
‘What evidence have we that Ascanio and his friend, or two men posing as them, ever came to the flat that night? Nobody saw them go in; nobody saw them go out. We have the evidence of one man and a host of inanimate objects.’
The characteristic Christie misdirection in this story was making us think we were listening to a butler, when really we were listening to a man.

(As a sidenote, I now wonder if my two ‘interesting points’ are actually related. The standard country house mystery has the murderer at the heart of the family/household, then how can this be updated to reflect the new fashionable urban living arrangements of the middle classes? For unattached men like Foscatini – well-to-do city renters – their household is their valet.)

(As a more pressing sidenote… OMG! What’s the deal with 1920s speed-eating??

To recap… Graves claims that two men came to visitor his master. A dinner (for three) is ordered and served at 8pm. This is a fact corroborated by the Regent’s Court chef. The meal consists of the following:
‘Soup julienne, filet de sole normande, tournedos of beef, and a rice soufflé.’

Okay, looks like a perfectly fine dinner. Apparently the men casually conversed about ‘politics, the weather, and the theatrical world’ while dining. Graves then placed the port on the table, served them coffee, and headed out to meet a friend.

Graves left the apartment at around 8.30pm.

8.30pm??

So, these men managed to put away soup, sole normande, beef tournedos, a little bit of rice soufflé (admittedly most of it was left) and some coffee, all the while conversing merrily… in half an hour? Seriously??

This gets even more indigestion-inducing when we discover the truth: in fact, there were no visitors, Foscatini was dead before 8 o’clock, and Graves himself consumed all of the ordered food. And then smoked a cigar and two cigarettes.

And then left the apartment at around 8.30pm.

Is it even possible to eat that much food in half an hour? He ate three quarters of a fish, for god’s sake! And around 15-21oz of steak! No wonder he bursts back into the flat later ‘with every appearance of grief and agitation’.)

Anyway… that’s enough beef for this vegetarian; I’ve spent enough time Googling what ‘sole’ and ‘tournedos’ actually are and asking my husband cryptic questions about how much fish he could eat in a single sitting. Let’s move on to the adaptation…


The episode was directed by Brian Farnham and written by Clive Exton. And it’s just excellent.

The beauty of this episode is that Christie’s story is retained faithfully, but the episode is fleshed out with the expansion of subplots and some lovely storylines for ‘the gang’. While this is true for a number of other early episodes of Poirot, the Poirot, Hastings and Miss Lemon storylines here are just beautiful.

Ironically, given that Christie’s story begins with Hastings curtly announcing that he and Poirot do have other friends, you know, the TV episode begins with him being utterly baffled by the concept of Miss Lemon having a social life. He enters Poirot’s office in a tizzy, because he’s discovered that Miss Lemon… isn’t there. Poirot tells him calmly that Miss Lemon is out with a gentleman friend.


I love this storyline – it belongs completely and utterly to the TV show and has absolutely no basis in any of Christie’s fiction. I love what it reveals about the ‘family’ dynamic of Poirot, Hastings and Miss Lemon, with Hastings assuming the role of protective older brother and Poirot that of affectionate pater. I love that Poirot insists Miss Lemon’s friend comes to tea, and that both men appear to be sizing him up in their different ways. I love Miss Lemon’s comments on the class system (‘the way we were all brought up to think’) when she discovers Edwin is a butler and not a private secretary. And I love the fact that this is (I think) the first time we hear someone call Miss Lemon ‘Felicity’.


But, more importantly, I love the way the gang react when Edwin Graves’s (Leonard Preston) crimes are revealed. After apprehending the murdering, cheating butler (more on that shortly), Hastings gives him a proper punch in the chops:
‘You swine! That’s for Miss Lemon!’
Avuncular Poirot, however, has to break the news to Miss Lemon. And I love this too. The little Belgian tiptoes into Miss Lemon’s office, prepared to gently explain that her boyfriend was (a) married and (b) a murderer. It’s such a sweet scene, and I love the way Suchet conveys Poirot’s palpable concern and pain on Miss Lemon’s behalf.

But I also love the fact that Miss Lemon doesn’t care. She has to ask Poirot who ‘Edwin’ is, because Mr Graves is dead to her. Not because he killed his employer. Not because he stole a load of money. Not because he had a secret wife. Not because he was weirdly proficient at speed-eating beef. But because he was planning to have Foscatini’s cat put to sleep. For Felicity Lemon, that is the ultimate crime.

The Miss Lemon storyline is probably my favourite bit of this episode, but the Hastings bit comes a very close second. As cats are to Miss Lemon, cars are to Captain Hastings. And oh boy! There’s a car and a half here.

In this episode, Hastings has decided to ditch his beloved Lagonda and purchase a swanky Eliso Freccia (a fictional Italian make). In bare plot terms, this is done to allow an expansion of the ‘sinister Italian’ red herring of Christie’s story. In the original, Foscatini is not a count, but rather a blackmailer. Ascanio – presumed to be a political assassin – is actually Foscatini’s victim, and his earlier visit to the man’s flat was for the purpose of paying him off. (In the story, as in the TV version, Foscatini is revealed to be a very reasonable blackmailer.)

In the adaptation, Foscatini’s web of blackmail goes further, involving Bruno Vizzini (David Neal) and Margherita Fabbri (Anna Mazzotti) of the Eliso Freccia firm. This allows for two further expansions: (1) the obligatory reference to the brewing conflict in Europe, as Vizzini’s ‘crime’ is to have supported anti-fascist groups in Italy; and (2) a somewhat underwhelming subplot for Japp, where he’s on the trail of the ‘Maznada’, an Italian organized crime family that’s ‘older than the Mafia’. But while these are perfectly sensible reasons for including the Italian car firm in the episode, I think we all know the real reason for including it… it’s an excuse for some Hastings car porn!


There’s a bit of a joke among some fans of the series that early episodes shoehorned in car chases at the drop of a hat. Hastings does tend to jump behind the wheel with ease in the first couple of series, but ‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’ gives us the ne plus ultra of car chases.

When the police descend on Chichester to apprehend the absconding Mr Graves, the murderous valet spins his car round and floors it. Hastings spots an opportunity, jumps into a waiting Eliso Freccia car (apparently played by an Alfa Romeo 2900A with its understandably protective owner body-doubling for Hugh Fraser, in case you’re interested) and goes in pursuit. What follows is a brilliant sequence, in which the two men wheel their rather cumbersome cars through increasingly narrow streets, at a speed that could hardly be called ‘breakneck’. A passer-by shrieks and drops her crockery; the chase is held up by a wandering flock of geese; holiday-makers in an open-top bus point in amazement. It’s pure magic.

Fun as the car chase is, I do have some concerns about the Eliso Freccia car. You see, I paused the episode at the moment Hastings signs the purchase contract…


Woah… how much? £1900? So, about £130,000 in today’s money? Where on earth did Hastings get that much money from? Why is he still mooching off Poirot if he’s got £1900 burning a hole in his pocket? Once again, the finances of Captain Hastings baffle me.

Argh… it’s the early hours of the morning and I’m in danger of getting sidetracked by Hastings’s bank balance again. Time to wrap this one up, I think. Just a couple of additional points of interest with this one…

1. I like that Hastings employs the same visualisation techniques as Miss Lemon used in ‘Double Sin’ when she lost the flat keys. Here, Hastings has to cast his mind back to seeing a postcard of Graves’s boat in order to remember where it was docked.


2. The (fictional) Regent’s Court of Christie’s story is replaced by a real building – Addisland Court. The scenes at Foscatini’s flat were actually filmed on location at Addisland Court, which makes this block of flats one of the few buildings to actually play itself in the series.

3. The gut-busting reality of what Graves actually does clearly bothered Exton as much as it bothers me, as he makes some subtle changes to ease the strain on Graves’s digestive tract. While the menu is identical to that in Christie’s short story (the interview with the chef is one of the scenes adapted almost verbatim from the source), the TV Graves only pretends there is one guest coming. Thus, he only has to Man-versus-Food two full dinners, instead of three. Exton also makes a minor adjustment to the timings: the dinner is served at 8pm, but Graves doesn’t go out until just before nine, giving him a little bit longer to finish the steaks.

4. Poirot doesn’t respond well to the arrival of Count Foscatini’s cat.


And with that, it’s time to move on. The next episode is ‘The Chocolate Box’

Monday, 11 February 2019

Poirot Project: The Case of the Missing Will (review)


This post is part of my 2016-19 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Yellow Iris’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The fourth episode of the fifth series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first broadcast on 7th February 1993. It was based on the short story of the same name, which was published in The Sketch on October 1923 – though the closeness of this adaptation is something I’m going to come back to shortly.

Christie’s short story is a neat – but rather straightforward – little puzzle for the great detective. It begins with Poirot and Hastings receiving a new client, which Hastings says is ‘rather a pleasant change from [their] routine work’ (though he doesn’t say what, exactly, he counts as ‘routine work’). Hastings’s happiness is short-lived, however, as it transpires that the client, Violet Marsh, is… shock, horror!... a New Woman:
‘I am not a great admirer of the so-called New Woman myself, and, in spite of her good looks, I was not particularly prepossessed in her favour.’
Poirot seems to quite like Violet, though, so the reader is prepossessed in her favour. Is this fair? Hastings can be a pretty bad judge of women… but then again, so can Poirot. After all, it’s Poirot who is taken in by Nick Buckley and Jane Wilkinson, and he’s got a definite soft spot for Jacqueline de Bellefort and (obviously) Vera Rossakoff. Fortunately, we don’t have to worry too much about these murderers and jewel thieves, as Violet Wilson has come with quite a different sort of puzzle.

Violet was the niece (and only relative) of rich businessman Andrew Marsh. During his lifetime, her uncle held ‘peculiar and deeply-rooted ideas as to the upbringing of women’, and was not happy when his niece decided to go to Girton. To teach her that her new-fangled ‘book learning’ is no match for his masculine brains, he uses his will as a final posthumous battle of wits: Marsh leaves all his property to Violet for one year, during which time she must ‘prove her wits’ or the fortune will pass to charities.

After Marsh died, Violet made a quick search of the house, couldn’t find anything obvious, and so immediately came to hire Poirot to solve the puzzle for her. Which he does.

It really is as simple as that.

Poirot visits Crabtree Manor, Marsh’s former home, spots a couple of inconsistencies, and then uses these to ascertain the whereabouts of a second will (dated shortly after the first), which leaves everything unconditionally to Violet. To be brutally honest, it’s a bit of a waste of his excellent little grey cells.

Hastings is thoroughly disappointed by the whole business. He seems bored as he narrates Poirot’s forensic search of the house, unimpressed by Poirot’s discovery of a label that doesn’t match the others, and confused by a last-minute epiphany on a train. As Poirot makes a dash back to Crabtree Manor for the big reveal, Hastings is grumpy and complains that Poirot isn’t paying him enough attention.

Despite his friend’s strop, Poirot is delighted by the case and sums it all up with ‘triumph’. He’s worked out the puzzle, and his client has won the battle of wits. He suggests that this means she has ‘justified her choice of life and elaborate education’, and also that her uncle’s trick was always intended to vindicate his niece’s academic career (assuming she was successful, of course).

Cranky Hastings sees things differently. ‘The old man really won,’ he grumbles.
‘“But no, Hastings. It is your wits that go astray. Miss Marsh proved the astuteness of her wits and the value of the higher education for women by at once putting the matter in my hands. Always employ the expert. She has amply proved her rights to the money.”
“It’s not fair! You never listen to me! I wish I’d never been born!” I shouted, as I ran out of the room and slammed the door.’
Okay. I made that last bit up.

‘The Case of the Missing Will’ is probably not on many Top 10 Poirot Stories lists. It’s a little bit of fun for both Poirot and the reader (not Hastings though), but it’s not the most memorable case. Nevertheless, Christie was clearly quite happy with the central conceit, as it’s one of the plots she reused later on.

The Miss Marple story ‘Strange Jest’ was first published in the US in 1941 and then in the Strand Magazine in 1944 (under the title ‘A Case of Buried Treasure’).* In this little tale, Miss Marple is introduced to kissing-(third)-cousins Edward Rossiter and Charmian Stroud, the sole heirs to their shared Great-Great-Uncle Mathew. Edward and Charmian are convinced that their Uncle Mathew was in possession of a large fortune in gold bullion, but when he died there was no sign of any fortune. Their friend Jane Helier convinces the lovebirds to enlist Miss Marple’s assistance to get their hands on the loot.

As in ‘The Case of the Missing Will’, the detective here accompanies the putative heirs to the dead man’s house, rifles through his property, and then produce the booty with a flourish. But it’s the differences between the stories that are most interesting.

What I really like about this pair of stories is the way that Christie fitted each of the ‘missing will’ pranks to the idiosyncrasies of the respective sleuths. So, in the earlier story, the clue comes in the form of a label that doesn’t match the others; in the later one, the hints come in sly uses of outdated slang (‘gammon and spinach’, ‘all my eye and Betty Martin’). In ‘Missing Will’, Poirot pores over an account of the day of the will’s writing and finds an interesting item in the schedule; in ‘Strange Jest’, Miss Marple sees a possible parallel with her own Uncle Henry.

It’s lucky that Charmian, Edward and Violet picked their detectives so carefully. I wonder if Miss Marple would’ve guessed Andrew Marsh’s invisible ink – and what would Poirot have made of Uncle Mathew?

I must admit, I really warmed towards ‘The Case of the Missing Will’ after I read ‘Strange Jest’. I thoroughly recommend reading them as companion pieces to remind you of the important differences between Christie’s two famous sleuths.

And now… controversy! It’s time to look at the ITV adaptation of ‘The Case of the Missing Will’, and the first Poirot episode to veer substantively away from its source story. Dun dun dunnnnnn…


‘The Case of the Missing Will’ was directed by John Bruce and written by Douglas Watkinson. It does not follow the plot of Christie’s short story, though it makes some allusions to it.

I’m just going to get this out of the way up front: I don’t think this is a problem. Christie’s short story would not have made a good episode of the TV show – or, at least, not one that would have fit with the rest of the series. I know the 90s was a simpler time, but I just can’t imagine us all curling up in front of the TV to watch David Suchet meticulously looking through drawers for an hour while Hugh Fraser stropped about in the background. I mean, obviously I’d watch that now. But I probably wouldn’t have liked it so much when I was fourteen. I would’ve probably changed over to… *checks 1993 TV listings*… So Haunt Me?? Urgh. Only one thing for it…

Picture Credit: TV Whirl

Fortunately, Douglas Watkinson stopped teenage me from having to make the choice between So Haunt Me and Bamboozle, as the TV version of ‘The Case of the Missing Will’ is a pretty standard Poirot episode. It’s also, in my opinion, very well done – I only realized that it’s not actually a Christie story years later when I started reading the early Poirot short stories.

So, let’s talk about the episode…

We begin with a flashback to 1926. A man named Andrew Marsh (played by Mark Kingston) is seeing in the New Year with friends. As the clock strikes twelve, he announces that he has made a will leaving most of his fortune to a medical foundation, with some to be held in trust for his ward (Violet Wilson)’s education. Violet (played as a child by Stephanie Thwaites) excitedly watches through the bannisters with the sons of Marsh’s friends, Robert Siddaway (Simon Owen) and Peter Baker (Glen Mead), but is dismayed to hear that her guardian imagines that her future lies in marriage, possibly to one of her young companions. Marsh’s friend Phyllida Campion (Susan Tracy) remonstrates, but it is clear that Marsh has rather fixed views on the role of women.

Thus, the stage is set for an episode that alludes to, but doesn’t follow, Christie’s story. We have a rich man named Andrew Marsh, who made his money farming in Australia (as Christie’s character had done), a young (sort of) heir named Violet, and some eyebrow-raising at the idea of women’s education. However, we also have a gang of Siddaways and Bakers (the Bakers here are not quite the household servants of the same names from the short story), a Miss Campion and Dr Pritchard who are not found in the source text. And, most important, Marsh’s will is definitely not missing.


The episode then jumps ahead to the present day. The present day being 1936, of course. Poirot and Hastings are attending a Cambridge University debate in the company of Violet Wilson. (As a side note, the adult Violet is played by Beth Goddard, in the first of her two Poirot appearances. Her second appearance will be in Appointment with Death ¬– another rather loose adaptation of Christie’s work. But we’ll talk about that one later.)

The debate is on women’s education – and women’s rights generally. Marsh is speaking against, and Robert Siddaway (played as an adult by Edward Atterton) is speaking for. Robert makes an unsurprisingly prescient speech, arguing that – when the inevitable war in Europe comes – women will be expected to work in factories, munitions works, and even the armed forces. The guffawing idiots in the audience (clearly oblivious to the roles women played during the war that ended less that twenty years earlier) shout him down with derogatory comments about the W.I. Overcome with outrage at the sexist nonsense she’s hearing, Violet interjects and the meeting descends into boorish chaos.

Robert’s invocation of an upcoming war is interesting here. I’ve said several times in these posts that the TV series conjures up a world that is permanently on the brink of WWII, but never actually fighting it. This episode comes closer than many to accepting that a war will happen: Robert makes specific reference to an alliance between Hitler and Mussolini, and – unexpectedly – we actually see a young British man in army uniform, as the Bakers’ son Peter (now played by Neil Stuke) is home on leave for the duration of the episode.


All this is perfectly in-keeping with the rest of the series, but it just feels a little bit heavy-handed in these opening scenes. That probably doesn’t mean anything though. It’s not like Britain’s relationship with other European nations was a particularly hot topic in early 1993 or anything.

Picture Credit: TV Whirl

Anyway… as I’ve said above, Christie’s short story is simply a treasure hunt for our little Belgian detective. The TV episode has to add a few extra twists and turns to keep us away from Bamboozle. Those twists include… Andrew Marsh decides to change his will! Then he gets murdered! Japp turns up to investigate! And he recognizes shifty Dr Pritchard (Richard Durden)! The will goes missing! Hastings rides a horse! Dr Pritchard says he thinks Andrew has a secret son! Miss Campion gets pushed down a moving staircase! Poirot questions Margaret Baker (Gillian Hanna) about her son Peter! Sarah Siddaway (Rowena Cooper) hints that Robert in Marsh’s son! Miss Lemon investigates!
‘What’s going on? What on earth is happening?’
(Violet has obviously read Christie’s short story.)

Joking aside, the story plays out in a typically Poirot way. A man is murdered shortly after making a new will (which goes missing), and there is a small circle of suspects. A red herring is dismissed (Japp recognized Dr Pritchard from an earlier case), and a misunderstanding is revealed (Marsh’s comments about parenthood meant that he had a daughter, not a son). And in typical Christie fashion (though not actually written by Christie), the case hinges on the question of who has specific medical knowledge (were you listening carefully?).

I have kinda mixed feelings about the episode’s ending. On the one hand, I like that Watkinson brings us back to Christie’s short story at the end. It’s revealed that Violet is, in fact, Marsh’s daughter (her mother is Miss Campion). After the pesky business of the murder has been cleared up, Poirot assures Violet that Marsh wanted to change his will to leave everything to her: ‘As proof that she was his daughter!... And his equal.’ This is a nice echo of Poirot’s assertion in the short story that Violet has ‘proved the astuteness of her wits and the value of the higher education for women’. At least the TV version of Marsh saw the error of his assessment before he died.

On the other hand, the revelation that Violet is Marsh and Miss Campion’s daughter leaves a couple of question marks. Violet grows up believing that she is the daughter of Marsh’s late business partner in Australia. When this unnamed partner – and, presumably, his wife/girlfriend – died, Marsh benevolently assumed guardianship of the orphan and employed Australian Margaret Baker as a nanny. When Marsh moved back to England, he was ‘called away to fight in France’, and Margaret married a policeman (played by Jon Laurimore) and had Peter.

The problem is… this isn’t true. Violet was born in 1913 to Phyllida Campion, while the woman was a student at Cambridge. Her birth was registered in England. So how did the baby end up in Australia? (Presumably she did end up in Australia, as Margaret Baker gives no indication that the nanny story was a lie.) Did Miss Campion send her straight over? Did she go with her? What exactly was the relationship between Phyllida and Andrew? Did no one spot that Andrew made a quick jaunt to Cambridge from Australia in 1912, and then miraculously produced his dead business partner’s child nine months later? Did Andrew falsely register Violet’s birth in Australia – giving her the surname ‘Wilson’? Did no one question why a single man, with apparently no blood relationship to the child, was registering the birth of a baby at least two weeks old (and that’s assuming Miss Campion gave birth and then immediately shoved the baby on a boat), with the implausible claim that both the child’s parents had died. The more you look at it, the harder to swallow it seems.

Quick! Let’s distract ourselves with Hastings on a horse!


Despite my concern about Baby Violet’s ocean voyage, I still really like this episode. There are some great little details to enjoy. Hastings’s horse ride, for instance… This is the moment when our intrepid sidekick discovers Marsh’s body. As he rides across the countryside with Violet, he looks up and exclaims:
‘What a charming folly!’
This always makes me smile – follies are never good news in Agatha Christie stories.

But by far my favourite bit of the episode is the return of Miss Lemon’s investigative skills. Obviously, I enjoy seeing her peering over card catalogues and registers with her acute eye for the detail of a filing system. But I also like the fact that it is specifically Miss Lemon who spots a slip from the doctor – he refers to ‘Mrs Campion’, rather than ‘Miss Campion’ – and, from the way she questions this, it seems she guesses the reason for the slip before any of the men. For this reason, Poirot entrusts the task of hunting down Miss Campion’s records to her, leaving poor old Hastings kicking his heels on his own in the car park (at least he doesn’t have a strop this time).


And so, ‘The Case of the Missing Will’ might not follow Christie’s original story, but it’s still a great episode. Watkinson does a good job of riffing on Christie’s story to create a script that is convincing as an adaptation (for viewers unfamiliar with the original). There are just enough allusions to reassure fans of Christie’s stories that the writer had read the original as well.

Oh, and we get to see Poirot in his pyjamas again. I’m building up a collection of these pictures, because I have a theory that the detective’s bedtime attire gets distinctly fussier as the series progresses. As you can see, he is not wearing a hairnet or moustache protector in this episode. I doubt anyone apart from me cares.


Right, onto the next episode (and a real favourite of mine) – ‘The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman’




* Academic footnote ahoy! Just to say, I have the version of ‘Strange Jest’ that appears in the eBook edition of the Miss Marple and Mystery: The Complete Short Stories collection, published by HarperCollins in 2011 (2008).

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Poirot Project: The Yellow Iris (review)


This post is part of my 2016 2016-17 2016-19 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Underdog’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The third episode of the fifth series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot – ‘The Yellow Iris’ – was first broadcast on 31st January 1993. It was based on the short story ‘Yellow Iris’ (aka ‘The Case of the Yellow Iris’), which was first published in the Strand in 1937. Christie’s original short story has Poirot flying solo, as there are no recurring characters (not even George) in this one.

I loved this episode when I first saw it. When I come to talk about the adaptation, I’ll try and put my finger on what it was that intrigued me so much. But first, I have to say something about Christie’s story – and its successor.

‘Yellow Iris’ begins with Poirot sitting home alone, admiring his electric radiator: ‘Its neat arrangement of red hot bars pleased his orderly mind.’ It’s clear that Hercule is a teeny bit bored tonight. When the phone goes at half eleven, he gets a bit excited and fondly imagines it might be some mad case that only he can solve:
‘“And it might,” he murmured to himself with a whimsical smile, “be a millionaire newspaper proprietor, found dead in the library of his country house, with a spotted orchid clasped in his left hand and a page torn from a cookbook pinned to his breast.”’
(This jokey idea for a case seems to ring a bell with me… I don’t know if it’s an allusion to an actual story, or if it crops up in the series as one of Ariadne Oliver’s plots. If you know why it seems familiar, do let me know in the comments.)

The phone call, though, is even more cryptic. A woman’s voice – ‘with a kind of desperate urgency about it’ – tells Poirot that she’s in danger, and asks him to go to the Jardin des Cygnes immediately. He is to find the table with the yellow irises. Poirot is intrigued, and he hurries along to the fancy French restaurant (which is owned by a man named ‘fat Luigi’).

The table with yellow irises has been booked by Barton Russell, a wealthy American, who has gathered a motley crew of friends around him for the evening: Pauline Weatherby (Russell’s sister-in-law), Anthony Chapell, Stephen Carter (a man is diplomatic service known as ‘Silent Stephen’) and Lola Valdez (a South American dancer). As it happens, Poirot has a prior acquaintance with Tony Chapell, and so he manages to get himself invited to the table. No one admits to being the mystery caller, and the party speculate as to what the great detective might be doing at the Jardin des Cygnes:
‘“He’s got an appointment with a body, I believe, or is it an absconding financier, or the Rajah of Borrioboolagah’s great ruby? […] The stolen plans must be found or war will be declared tomorrow!”’
(I know why these jokes all sound familiar – they all have echoes of actual cases Poirot has worked. The ‘appointment with a body’ could be anything, but the ‘absconding financier’ sounds like ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’, the ‘Rajah of Borrioboolagah’s great ruby’ could be ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’, and the final joke evokes ‘The Incredible Theft’.)

Poirot demurs and pretends to just be out for a standard night on the tiles, and the party open up and tell him what they’re doing at the Jardin des Cygnes.

Four years earlier, Barton Russell’s wife Iris died at a party in New York attended by the same guests. Although a verdict of suicide was returned, Russell believes it was murder. He has gathered the suspects together that night in order to uncover the ‘truth’.

Iris’s death occurred during a cabaret performance. The lights went down as the singer took the stage, and when they came up again Iris was slumped dead on the table. A packet of potassium cyanide was found in her handbag. Russell is determined to recreate the events of that night, and so after explaining the circumstances to Poirot, he hurries off to make an arrangement with the band.

The lights go down, and a singer takes the stage to perform the same song as that fateful night four years ago. When the song ends, Pauline drops down dead.

The story is quite a simple one and the puzzle has an elegance to it – Poirot is able to solve it without even leaving the restaurant. In fact, Pauline isn’t dead. The little Belgian warned her not to drink any champagne, but to simply pretend. He then reveals that it is Pauline’s brother-in-law himself who is responsible. Under the pretence of speaking to the band, Russell disguised himself as a waiter, topped up glasses at the table, and sneaked cyanide into Pauline’s glass. Since Iris’s death, Russell had been Pauline’s guardian, and Poirot surmises that the man had been dipping into her inheritance. He couldn’t allow her to reach her majority and uncover his embezzlement, and so he sets up the dinner at the restaurant to get rid of the problem. Poirot is unable to say for sure whether Russell killed Iris four years ago, but he knows that it was Pauline who telephoned and summoned him to the restaurant.

With that, Russell snarls a lot, Pauline decides not to press charges, and Poirot has a bit of a boogie with Lola Valdez.

‘Yellow Iris’ isn’t the most developed or intriguing Poirot story, but it has a couple of neat little features. Namely, the idea of the remembrance party (with the eponymous ‘Iris’ being present, but absent from the entire story), and the ‘no one notices the waiter’ trick to effect the murder. These features are the threads that hold together some quite disparate retellings of ‘Yellow Iris’ over the year, beginning with Christie’s own revision of the story in 1945.


A few years after the publication of ‘Yellow Iris’, Christie rewrote and revised her short story (as was her wont). She turned it into a novel, Sparkling Cyanide, and replaced Poirot with Colonel Race. Colonel Race is a recurring character in Christie’s work, who pops up in a couple of Poirot novels as well. I’ll be writing a separate post on Colonel Race later, so I won’t say much more about his appearances here.

Sparkling Cyanide is recognisably related to ‘Yellow Iris’, but it’s a quite different take on the story. I’ll admit I didn’t even know it existed until a number of years after I’d seen the ITV version of ‘The Yellow Iris’ (which, as I’ve said, was a firm favourite). I accidentally stumbled on the 1983 film version on telly one night. I didn’t know it was even an Agatha Christie adaptation, but it soon became clear that it shared certain important features with ‘The Yellow Iris’ – namely, the remembrance party, the poisoned champagne, and the waiter disguise. Later on, I saw the 2003 version of Sparkling Cyanide with Oliver Ford Davies and Pauline Collins, in which Colonel Race becomes Colonel Reece and acquires a co-investigating wife. The story gets an espionage subplot, and the whole thing has a Tommy-and-Tuppence feel to it. But those key features are retained, of course.

I don’t want to get into the respective merits of the adaptations of Sparkling Cyanide here, but I do want to admit that I hadn’t read the novel until I was preparing this post. I think I’d been put off by the adaptations, to be honest, as they both felt a need to ‘update’ Christie’s work and make it ‘glamorous’, whereas I always had a soft spot for the simplicity of the mystery plot in ‘The Yellow Iris’. Perhaps, also, I was quite loyal to the earlier story, and I didn’t want to cheat on it with the non-Poirot rewrite.

But, this blog is nothing if not completist, so I took the plunge and gave Sparkling Cyanide a go. (The academic in me insists I point out that all references to the book are from the 2017 Kindle edition, published by HarperCollins.)

It was… really not what I expected! I loved it!

Sparkling Cyanide really focuses on the remembrance aspect of the story. It’s divided into three books, and the first one is literally just the main characters remembering the events of nearly a year earlier (and preceding circumstances). In this version of the story, the dead woman is Rosemary Barton (though she still died of drinking poisoned champagne after a cabaret show). Her younger sister is Iris Marle, who has been under the guardianship of Rosemary’s widowed husband George Barton. Other characters include Ruth Lessing (Barton’s competent secretary), Anthony Browne (Iris’s kind of boyfriend, who was previously infatuated with Rosemary), and Stephen and Alexandra Farraday (friends – or are they? – of the Bartons).

As this is a novel, these characters are substantially fleshed out in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in the short story. It should be said, as well, that they are different characters to those in ‘Yellow Iris’. Most notably, George Barton is not Barton Russell. He’s a ‘kindly, pleasant, but definitely dull’ man who, while he does eventually become obsessed with the idea his wife was murdered, is nothing but kindness and compassion to his young sister-in-law.

Being familiar with ‘Yellow Iris’, I was expecting this all to be a ruse to throw you off the scent. But then Christie pulled the rug from under my feet… when the suspects get together for their remembrance party, one of their number drops dead from poisoned champagne… but it’s George Barton, not Iris Marle. Was not expecting that!

So that’s the big change between ‘Yellow Iris’ and Sparkling Cyanide (which clearly I hadn’t paid much attention to on my cursory viewings of the adaptations). The significant details remain the same though, with the memory element played up even more in the novel (hence the name changes: Rosemary, as we’re repeatedly reminded, is for remembrance) and the murder technique kept the same.

I did enjoy Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide, and it made for an interesting companion piece to ‘Yellow Iris’ (I’m always fascinated as to which bits of a story Christie retains, and which she changes in her rewrites). However, I will say… Colonel Race is almost entirely redundant in the novel. I can understand why Christie removed limelight-stealing Poirot from the mix, but she doesn’t exactly put his replacement to work. He only appears halfway through and, even then, he doesn’t do an awful lot of investigating.

Poor Colonel Race… hopefully his time will come in another novel.

Right… on to the ITV adaptation of ‘Yellow Iris’, which gains a definite article and becomes ‘The Yellow Iris’.

This episode was directed by Peter Barber Fleming and written by Anthony Horowitz. As I’ve said, it was always one of my favourites of the early series, so it does pain me a little that I’m going to point out historical inaccuracy and an icky race thing in this post – but rewatching the episode in the context of this project has sadly brought a couple of negative points to my attention.

Let’s start with the positives though, shall we?


Overall, as might be expected, Horowitz’s adaptation is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the plot of ‘Yellow Iris’ (though the setting and set-up have been changed). And it was this plot structure that I fell in love with all those years ago.

During a tetchy argument with Hastings about the failings of English cuisine, Poirot discovers that a restaurant called the Jardin des Cygnes is to open in London. This stirs up an unhappy memory for the detective, which is only exacerbated when Miss Lemon arrives bearing a yellow iris that has arrived with the post.

The remembrance element of the story, here, is all Poirot’s, and he decides to recount a painful story to his associates that took place during a disastrous trip to Argentina two years earlier. He tells them that, while staying in Buenos Aires, he came upon a party of people – Barton Russell (played by David Troughton), his sister-in-law Pauline Wetherby (Geraldine Somerville), his business partner Stephen Carter (Hugh Ross), journalist Anthony Chapell (Dorian Healy) and dancer Lola Valdez (Yolanda Vasquez). Also in the party, though Poirot saw little of her, was Russell’s wife Iris (Robin McCaffrey). One night, Poirot ended up at the same restaurant as the people who had attracted his attention – the Jardin des Cygnes, run by an Italian named Luigi (played by Joseph Long and not, as he is in Christie’s story, nicknamed ‘fat’). At dinner, the group watched a cabaret performance, raised their glasses in a toast to Iris, and then looked on in horror as the woman died from drinking poisoned champagne. Poirot wished to investigate, but he was arrested by a certain General Pereira (Stefan Gryff), accused of espionage, and unceremoniously deported. It was a shameful episode, and he decided never to speak of it again.

Now a new Jardin des Cygnes is opening, and a yellow iris has been sent to the detective. Poirot fears that history might be about to repeat itself.

Ultimately, that is the story of ‘The Yellow Iris’. While Poirot and Hastings do a little bit of investigating to find out the party’s backstory (which is a little different and much expanded from the source story), the main focus of the episode is on the tragedy in Buenos Aires and the remembrance party in London two years later. The denouement comes when Pauline drinks her champagne and falls down dead, only to reappear at the key moment when Poirot reveals how the murder/attempted murder was pulled off by Russell.

The plot elements that had me enthralled as a teenager are the ones that Christie obviously thought were the central points – since they’re the ones she retained in her otherwise much revised novel. They’re also the points that are common to all adaptations of ‘Yellow Iris’ and Sparkling Cyanide – the remembrance party, the poisoned champagne, the waiter disguise. The episode makes the latter even clearer, as it introduces a little trick on the part of the detective during his climactic reveal. While in Christie’s story, Pauline simply sits up at the right moment and says ‘Resurrection of Pauline’, the adaptation has the young woman disguise herself as a waitress and serve the suspects coffee to prove that no one notices the waiting staff (this was my favourite bit of the episode when I first watched it).

There are some other little details that are retained from Christie’s story – in the source, it’s Pauline who makes the panicked phone call to Poirot inviting him to the restaurant, and here it’s Pauline who sends the yellow iris as a cry for help. And the all-important cabaret song – ‘I’ve Forgotten You’ – is included in the episode with lyrics taken directly from Christie’s story (in fact, I think Christie wrote these lyrics specifically).

In addition to this, there are some added touches in-keeping with the rest of the TV series that are quite nice. In particular, I like Poirot’s classy art deco breakfast.


It is this slice of toast that leads to Poirot and Hastings falling out about food. It’s a grumpy little argument that is put to one side when Hastings spots the advert for the Jardin des Cygnes. But we come back to it nicely at the end when, having been deprived of a fancy French dinner by the machinations of Barton Russell, Poirot is treated to some fish and chips by his old pal.

Awww… sweet.

But now… Argentina. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

As I’ve said, the backstory – the murder of Iris – is transposed to Argentina from New York, and in this version Poirot was actually present at the first dinner. There are three reasons this really doesn’t work, and they all hinge on the fact that the episode’s opening scene pins the date of Iris Russell’s death to 1934.


Clearly, the ‘present day’ bit of the episode is meant, as other episodes in the series are, to be set in 1936. Characters keep referring to Iris’s death as happening ‘two years ago’, so we don’t really need the gravestone to tell us she died in 1934. But it’s there nevertheless, literally setting the date of the Argentina section in stone. Which causes the following problems:

1. Poirot is in Buenos Aires en route to visiting Hastings who is living in Argentina on a ranch in La Pampa. Is he?? Why hasn’t this been mentioned before? Does he still own the ranch? Why has he come back to mooch off Poirot if he owns a ranch in Argentina? Is someone running it for him in his absence? How did he afford it in the first place? How come, in August 1936, he spends ages telling Poirot and Japp about his six-month holiday in South America without mentioning anything at all about a ranch in La Pampa? Had he lost it by then? Does he buy another ranch after he gets married? Is Hastings some sort of mad ranch addict?

This does raise another question in my mind about Hastings’s ranch-o-philia. In Christie’s stories, Hastings makes the switch to Argentinian farming in the early 1920s. When he comes back for a visit in 1936 (in The A.B.C. Murders, he bemoans global and local economic circumstances that are making it hard for him to succeed. This isn’t surprising. The 1930s in Argentina are known as the ‘Infamous Decade’, during which time political unrest, corruption and the Great Depression caused huge economic upheaval in the country. It’s not surprising that Hastings’s ranch, which had seemed a sensible investment in the early 20s, is struggling by 1936.

And yet, in the TV series, Hastings actively chooses to start farming in Argentina in the middle of the Infamous Decade. I know he’s a bit daft, but surely this is an unwise decision even for him?

2. Now, this talk of the Infamous Decade reveals another potential problem with the episode, though I’m not 100% sure I heard the dialogue correctly here, so feel free to correct me if necessary.

When Poirot arrives in Buenos Aires, things are a bit hairy. There are regular power cuts, general strikes, and a foreboding military presence. Poirot quickly befriends Anthony Chapell, who gives him a bit of background as to the situation. Now, I’ve listened to the scene over and over again, and I’m convinced Chapell says:
‘The rumours are that President Yrigoyen can’t last much longer.’
This bugs me, as the series is normally so careful with historical detail. Hipólito Yrigoyen was deposed in a military coup in 1930 and died in 1933 (the year before this part is supposedly set).

I could have misheard – perhaps Chapell doesn’t say ‘Yrigoyen’ – but the episode certainly adds in an Argentinian coup d’etat that has no basis in historical fact. This just seems a bit disappointing given the eye for detail elsewhere in the series. Looking at the episode now, I really wonder why the story of Iris’s death was moved to Argentina in the first place. It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, and…

3. Isn’t it all a bit of a coincidence?

In Christie’s stories, Poirot and Race aren’t actually present at the first dinner. They are invited to the remembrance dinner in order to find out the truth about what happened to Iris/Rosemary. In the TV episode, however, Poirot was an eye witness to Iris’s death.

And then, two years later, not only does (not fat) Luigi decide to open an identical restaurant with an identical name down the road from Poirot’s house, but it also has its opening night on the anniversary of Iris’s death. And all the attendees from the first party are now living in London as well (while this is understandable in the case of Russell, Carter, Chapell and Pauline), is it not stretching it a bit to reveal that Lola Valdez also happens to be in town at just the right time?


Now, you might say that it’s not really a coincidence, that Russell took advantage of Luigi’s new restaurant to bump off Pauline. But the episode is at pains to remind us that Pauline is just one month off reaching her majority – and discovering that Russell has nicked her inheritance – and that Russell’s company is literally on the verge of financial ruin.


So Luigi opens a new restaurant and Lola moves to London and it’s the anniversary of Iris’s death at the exact moment that Russell needs to do something to cover his financial tracks? Suspicious… very suspicious.

I blame Luigi.

Anyway, as I’m nit-picking over an episode that I keep saying I love, I might as well raise one final uncomfortable point. It’s a bit of a strange one.

There is one final element that is common to Christie’s ‘Yellow Iris’, Sparkling Cyanide and ITV’s ‘The Yellow Iris’ – the race of the singer who performs at the cabaret.

In ‘Yellow Iris’, the singer of ‘I’ve Forgotten You’ is described thus:
‘A girl walked out into the middle of the floor, a coal black girl with rolling eyeballs and white glistening teeth. […] The sobbing tune, the deep golden Negro voice had a powerful effect. It hypnotized – cast a spell.’
In Sparkling Cyanide, the cabaret is described as ‘one of those negro shows’, a fact which is affirmed several times by different suspects.

In the TV episode, the singer at the Buenos Aires cabaret is played by Carol Kenyon (probably best known for her vocals on Heaven 17’s ‘Temptation’, which I’ve had stuck in my head for most of the time I’ve been writing this post). She is replaced by a white singer (played by Tracy Miller) for the second rendition of ‘I’ve Forgotten You’, which I’d suggest is performed in a much less ‘hypnotic’ way.

It was the insistent repetition of the description of a ‘negro show’ in Sparkling Cyanide that drew my attention to this detail, and I started to wonder why. Why does the race of the singer matter? It’s clearly not meant to denote a particular type of cabaret or venue, as it appears in both versions of the story (where the parties are otherwise quite different). The cabaret itself should be an irrelevance – it’s simply the thing that distracts everyone while the murderer is slipping cyanide into the champagne – so why give such specifics? And then to see Kenyon doing the ‘big’ performance in the TV episode, with Miller being simply the replica chosen for the rerun, really does make this detail stand out.

I suspect the answer is to be found in Christie’s original description in the original short story. ‘I’ve Forgotten You’ is meant to work like a spell – just as the figure of Iris/Rosemary will exert an almost supernatural power over those who saw her die. Its singer, then, functions almost as a ‘Magical Negro’ (or, at least, a ‘soulful’ singer), hypnotizing the dinner guests into a state of melancholic remembrance. Christie used this trope in 1937 and 1945 – and it was then replicated in 1993. Some things, perhaps, don’t change.

I feel like I’ve been way too critical of this episode. Sorry. I still really like it though. So let’s end with a picture of Poirot enjoying his fish and chips.


This post was way too long. And way too obsessed with Hastings’s ranches, Argentinian politics and dodgy racist tropes. It’s possible that this is the point where I start getting accused of overthinking Poirot.

Anyway, it’s the first day of 2019! Onwards and upwards! I reckon this is the year when I’m finally able to watch ‘Curtain’ – only a few more episodes to go (haha!).

Next up: ‘The Case of the Missing Will’

Monday, 31 December 2018

Poirot Project: The Underdog (review)


This post is part of my 2016 2016-17 2016-19 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The second episode of the fifth (-ish) series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot was ‘The Underdog’, and it was first broadcast on 24th January 1993. This episode was based on the short story ‘The Under Dog’ (note the slightly different spelling), which was first published in April 1926 in Mystery Magazine (and then in the UK later that year in London Magazine).

‘The Under Dog’ is one of the non-series Poirot short stories that appeared periodically in between the publication of novels. As such, it doesn’t feature Hastings as the narrator – like ‘Wasps’ Nest’ and ‘Problem at Sea’ – Hastings doesn’t appear in the story in person. (However, as in some of the other stories, Hastings isn’t entirely absent… but I’ll come to that shortly.)

The story begins with Poirot being consulted by a young woman called Lily Margrave. Lily is the paid companion of Lady Astwell, who has sent her to visit the famous detective and ask for his help. Lady Astwell’s husband – Sir Reuben Astwell – has been murdered, and his nephew Charles Leverson is accused of the crime. Lady Astwell is convinced that Charles is innocent, and so wishes Poirot to investigate and exonerate him.

The story’s set-up is charmingly comical. As Lily Margrave attempts to tell her story, the great detective appears not to take her very seriously:
‘His occupation at the moment struck her as particularly childish. He was piling small blocks of coloured wood one upon the other, and seemed far more interested in the result than in the story she was telling.’
There’s no real explanation for why Poirot is doing this – I think we’re just supposed to take it as one of his little eccentricities. It’s not really relevant to the story.

In outlining the circumstances of Sir Reuben Astwell’s death, Lily gives a brief sketch of his household – including his wife and nephew, his butler Parsons and his secretary Owen Trefusis. She eventually admits to Poirot that Lady Astwell is stubbornly sticking to her conviction that Charles is innocent, having developed an apparently irrational belief that Owen Trefusis is the guilty party. Lily Margrave believes this is all nonsense, and she tried to persuade her employer against asking Poirot to get involved.

This last point piques Poirot’s interest, and he instantly decides to go and visit the late Reuben Astwell’s home (named ‘Mon Repos’ in the story). And he’s taking steadfast valet George along for the ride.

Although this story doesn’t feature any of ‘the gang’, there are two familiar faces. As I’ve said, George plays his part in this case (more on that shortly). The story also sees the return of Detective-Inspector Miller (who appears in ‘The Lost Mine’, ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ and ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest’). Miller’s schtick is that basically he doesn’t like Poirot – and Poirot doesn’t rate him much either. He’s like the anti-Japp.

In ‘The Under Dog’, Poirot hears that Miller is in charge of the case, and he makes a couple of snarky asides to remind readers of their animosity. However, he eventually has to make a trip to Scotland Yard to actually speak to the policeman, which he does with a certain degree of reluctance. I quite like Christie’s description of Poirot’s arrival at the Yard:
‘Detective-Inspector Miller was not particularly fond of M. Hercule Poirot. He did not belong to that small band of inspectors at the Yard who welcomed the little Belgian’s co-operation. He was wont to say that Hercule Poirot was much over-rated.’
While we do see the odd police officer respond negatively to Poirot in other stories, this suggests that, actually, detectives like Miller are the majority – it’s Japp (and the rest of the ‘small band of inspectors’) who are unusual in their collaboration with the little Belgian. Interestingly, I’m writing this post just after watching this Christmas’s prestige BBC Christie production – the somewhat controversial adaptation of The A.B.C. Murders by Sarah Phelps. In this version (to much hand-wringing from so-called purists), Poirot is presented as a now-discredited charlatan, with Inspector Crome painfully reminding him that it was only Japp (and, presumably, a ‘small band of inspectors’) who ever trusted the unexpectedly tall Belgian’s co-operation.

In this year’s A.B.C. Murders, Poirot has to prove himself to Inspector Crome (or, rather, he has to honour his own personal vow to bring justice for the dead – distractingly this Poirot has a similar catchphrase to Logan Nelson in Jigsaw… but I digress). However, in ‘The Under Dog’, Poirot simply plays Inspector Miller like a fiddle, using some of the least subtle flattery in his arsenal, and getting the detective to share certain details of his investigation. And then he completely blows Miller out of the water with a theatrical gather-the-suspects denouement that reveals the idiot police had it all totally wrong. No wonder most of the Yard hates him.

Poirot’s investigation isn’t just missing Japp, though. He’s also missing Hastings. In the first non-Hastings story Christie wrote – ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’, Poirot missed his friend with a deep melancholy that was really sad to read. Time seems to heal Poirot’s wounds, and he talks less about his friend’s absence in later stories (even – shock, horror! – not mentioning him at all in some stories). ‘The Under Dog’ is somewhere in between. Although Poirot seems to be coping with his friend’s departure, he can’t help but slip his name randomly into conversation. It’s not quite as cheeky as his Arthur-the-Dummy joke in ‘Problem at Sea’, but his meandering comment about hunting in this story seems like an excuse just to get nostalgic:
‘To catch the fox you ride hard with the dogs. You shout, you run, it is a matter of speed. I have not shot the stag myself, but I understand that to do so you crawl for many long, long hours upon your stomach. My friend Hastings has recounted the affair to me.’
Sorry, Poirot… what’s that got to do with the murder again?

In place of Hastings, Poirot is accompanied by his valet George. As always, he finds George wanting as a sidekick, but there’s some good Poirot-and-George interactions in ‘The Under Dog’, and there’s just a slight glimmer of the valet starting to step up to his role as New-Hastings.

At first glance, it seems that the ‘[t]all, cadaverous and unemotional’ George is just going to depress Poirot. When the detective starts to get excited about heading down to Mon Repos to hunt a murderer, George is unmoved:
‘“Shall I pack dress clothes, sir?”’
Poirot looked at him sadly.
“Always the concentration, the attention to your own job. You are very good for me, George.”’
But as things unfold, George finds himself caught up in the chase. In response to a comment from Poirot about a man with a ‘tropical temper’, George can’t help but correct his employer with an uncharacteristic anecdote about his Aunt Jemima (‘a most shrewish tongue she had’). Emboldened, he then directly asks – or, as directly as a gentleman’s gentleman can ask – to play a role in the case:
‘“Is there anything I can do in any way,” he inquired delicately, “to – er – assist you, sir?”’
It’s a short step from inquiring delicately to keeping nix while Poirot rifles through a suspect’s underwear drawer. A short step indeed.

I need to turn my attention to the ITV adaptation in a minute, so just a few other things to say about the short story. It’s quite a long short story (over three times as long as the Sketch stories), so I’ll have to control myself.

One of the things I like about this story is the focus on the servants – particularly the butler Parsons and housemaid Gladys – as valuable witnesses. Nevertheless, in order to get their statements, Poirot has to exercise his talent for making people feel at ease. His first assessment of Parsons is, pretty much, a comment on fictional butlers in general:
‘This Parsons, then, he will have the characteristics of his class, he will object very strongly to the police, he will tell them as little as possible. Above all, he will say nothing that might seem to incriminate a member of the household.’
This quote comes from early in the story, and it introduces the theme of psychology – and Poirot’s understanding of psychology – that runs throughout the story. Each time he is called upon to interview someone, he instinctively weighs up their personality and employs the best approach to make them trust him. With Parsons, Poirot is respectful and understanding of the man’s position. With Miller, he flatters the man’s intelligence and perspicacity. With Lily Margrave, he adopts the avuncular persona he often uses with young women (‘You will tell old Papa Poirot?’), and with Lady Astwell he validates her belief in her intuition. With Gladys, he allows her to think he is French (quelle horreur!), so that she’s willing to show him one of Lily Margrave’s dresses (‘We all know that Frenchmen are interested in ladies’ dresses.’)

It makes sense that Christie focuses on Poirot’s ability to read people here, as this is a case that hinges on an understanding of personality, rather than any hard evidence. In fact, Poirot fakes a clue (the blood-soaked chiffon), lies to most of the suspects, and eventually goads the murderer into making a misstep by pretending to find something of interest on the staircase. The story’s title turns out to refer to this study of personality. As Poirot reminds us repeatedly – and, as George’s Aunt Jemima story affirms – people with bad tempers aren’t the most dangerous. ‘Those who bark do not bite.’

And so… on to the adaptation. Not the most memorable episode of the series, and, by the standards of the series so far, not the most faithful adaptation either. However, the changes it makes to the story are certainly interesting.


‘The Underdog’ (all one word) was written by Bill Craig and directed by John Bruce. I believe this was Craig’s only Poirot script, though Bruce also directed ‘The Case of the Missing Will’ (speaking of unfaithful adaptations… but we’re not there quite yet!).

From the episode’s opening moments, it’s clear that the setting has been altered. Obviously, it’s now set ten years later – as with almost all the early series, the episode is set in the mid-30s – but it’s also now got a bit of an industrial backdrop, as the episode opens in a laboratory. Chief Chemist (not secretary) Horace (not Owen) Trefusis (played by Bill Wallis) is reading a letter from a German. Of course, this is intended to get our hindsight tingling. A chemist? Reading a letter from Germany? In 1936? Dodgy stuff. But before we can really take that in, the scene is interrupted by a dubious-looking chap (come on… he’s wearing a polo neck and a flat cap!) bursting in and setting fire to the lab.

This opener is quite far removed from the background to Christie’s story. In the source text, Poirot (and the reader) discovers the ol’ leave-your-partner-for-dead-and-steal-the-mine trick (seriously – is there anyone in Golden Age detective fiction who owns a diamond/gold mine and didn’t swindle their partner and leave them for dead in the bush?). Reuben Astwell is the mine-swindler, and Humphrey Naylor is the disgruntled former colleague (‘It was assumed that he and the expedition had perished.’ Obvs.).

Craig’s adaptation drops the mine, and replaces it with a storyline about synthetic rubber. Humphrey Naylor (played by Andrew Seear) is a research chemist, who had previously approached Astwell’s Chemicals with a formula for a new product, for which he needed commercial backing. Reuben Astwell told him that the formula didn’t work. Imagine his surprise when he found that, not only had Astwell’s nicked his work, they were planning to licence it under the name Astoprene to German chemical giant I.G. Farben. In a way, that’s worse than being left for dead in the Mpala Gold Fields.

I’m quite fascinated by the I.G. Farben subplot in this episode. It serves as both a red herring and the genuine motive for the murder. But it also allows for a return to the perennial background to the series – the impending (but never breaking) war with Germany. And, as in other episodes, we get some pontifications from unlikeable men about the probable impact. Reuben Astwell (Denis Lill) gives a lecture on the inevitability of war, given the ‘remilitarisation of the Rhineland’ (he’s also seen reading a copy of the Evening Standard bearing the headline ‘Hitler’s Pledge to Britain’), before concluding that such an event would have ‘economic benefits’ and stop people ‘scrounging on the dole’. During his rant, it’s clear that Astwell hates the Germans and thinks their warmongering is despicable. And yet, he’s still happy to do business with I.G. Farben, suggesting that – if war’s coming – Astwell wants a big piece of the economic benefit pie.

More sinister, in a way, is Horace Trefusis’s enthusiastic response to this. He positively salivates at the thought of the scientific advances that can be made in a time of war (‘New fuels! New alloys!’). I don’t know if it’s just me, but Trefusis’s fervour for upcoming scientific developments, coupled with the impending contract with I.G. Farben, has a really uncomfortable undercurrent. Hindsight, again, tells us what role I.G. Farben played in the Nazi regime, and I find it difficult not to be reminded of the ‘scientific developments’ pursued by subsidiaries of the company. In reality, I.G. Farben would indeed produce synthetic rubber, and they would do so at the Monowitz Buna-Werke factory, part of the Auschwitz complex. The Buna factory used prisoners from Auschwitz camps as slave labour in the production of rubber.

So, in ‘The Underdog’, I’d suggest that we have more than the now-standard reference to impending war with Germany. In this episode, the shadow of the Holocaust is just discernible. Poirot is uncomfortable with the conversation – and with Astwell’s tasteless ‘joke’ about an imminent invasion of Belgium – and sombrely states: ‘I myself have experienced first-hand the horror and destruction of war with Germany.’* Later on, we see Victor Astwell (Ian Gelder) tearing up his late brother’s contract with I.G. Farben in distaste.

Cheery stuff, eh? But that’s just the Underdog’s undercurrent. Let’s turn our attention to its… erm… overcurrent(?) now, shall we?


I get why the gold mine storyline is changed to the synthetic rubber one. For one thing, the mine story would seem a little old-hat for 1936 (were there any mines left in the 30s that hadn’t already been swindled away by cantankerous Golden Age millionaires?), and the rubber subplot allows for more of a comment on the series’ period backdrop. But there are other changes to the story that seem less clearly thought-out.

I’m okay with the change to the house – Christie’s Mon Repos (‘a big, solidly built red-brick mansion, with no pretensions to beauty’) is replaced by the obligatory modern art deco house (not sure if a real house was used for the exterior shots in this episode, sorry) – but the changes to the characters make less sense.

In Christie’s story, most people in Mon Repos are pretty fiery characters. Reuben Astwell loves a good barney; his wife is an ex-actress who still enjoys her histrionics; brother Victor has the ‘tropical temper’ and makes his appearance by yelling at his chauffeur. The only person who doesn’t lose it is Owen Trefusis, who is described thus:
‘At a big desk at the farther end of [the library] sat a thin, pale young man busily writing. He had a receding chin, and wore pince-nez. […] Mr Owen Trefusis was a prim, proper young man, disarmingly meek, the type of man who can be, and is, systematically bullied. One could feel quite sure that he would never display resentment.’
So… an underdog type then?

In the adaptation, the only person who really has a bad temper is Reuben Astwell. Lady Nancy Astwell (Ann Bell)’s past career as an actress is only mentioned once in passing by her husband – though we do see a couple of framed pictures of her in her heyday… looking a little like a young Gladys Cooper in one of them.


Gladys Cooper

Lady Astwell’s acting career (and resemblance to Gladys Cooper) is irrelevant to the plot here. It’s barely even a red herring. She’s the model of a sensible and level-headed wife, weighed down by the peculiar rages of her husband. Similarly, Victor Astwell is transformed from a chauffeur-roasting hothead to a mild-mannered ‘junior partner’, forced to endure the mad wrath of his unhinged older brother. Nancy and Victor appear to be cowed by Reuben, weathering the storm and – I think it’s implied – turning to each other for comfort. (It’s Victor who snaps the knife in the table in this version of the story, not Trefusis.)

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t Victor Astwell supposed to fancy Lily? Well not here. In another inexplicable change, Lily (Adie Allen) is now head-over-heels for Charles Leverson (Jonathan Phillips), Astwell’s golf-loving nephew. Charles is also under the thumb of his uncle, and only plucks up the courage to stand up for himself on the night of the murder (bad timing, really). Lily is a demure lady’s companion, behaving with decorum and modesty, and only slightly raising her voice when Astwell sacks her for rooting through his office.

In the end, the only person who actually seems to stand up to Astwell is… Horace Trefusis, who is more than happy to openly disagree with his employer on a couple of occasions. Although Poirot declares Trefusis to be an ‘underdog’ in the denouement – and Trefusis spits back that Astwell was ‘a bully’ – in fact he’s the only character that isn’t bullied. And, it turns out, he murdered Astwell for cold hard cash, as he knew he wasn’t going to get a penny from the I.G. Farben contract.

These changes don’t make for a bad story per se, but they do leave you wondering why the episode is called ‘The Underdog’. ‘The Reasonably Assertive Murder Chemist’ would have been a better title, but I guess that would’ve constituted a spoiler.


(I don’t really have anything to say about the picture above, except that I love the bit where Gladys (Lucy Davidson) discovers Astwell’s body. It’s pitch-perfect servant-discovers-a-corpse acting, complete with a dropped breakfast tray.)

Now, on to the character changes that we kind of expect from this series: the introduction of ‘the gang’. It’s just two-thirds of the gang this time though, as, despite the opportunity, Japp hasn’t been added to replace Miller in this episode. Instead, Miller is simply dropped, and the police are represented by a nameless local sergeant (played by Michael Vaughan).


However, we do have Miss Lemon, who replaces the minor character of Dr Cazalet of Harley Street. You see, along with séance, I Ching, tarot and automatic writing, Miss Lemon has an interest in hypnosis. She tries her technique out on Poirot early in the episode – with no success – but is later called on to reveal the secret clue lurking in Lady Astwell’s subconscious. This is a nice touch, as it fits with Poirot’s reliance on a hypnotist in Christie’s story, but also links to the TV character of Miss Lemon that the series has created.

Naturally, along with Miss Lemon, we also have Hastings. Sadly, though, I don’t think Hastings works in this episode. He’s not simply there as a replacement for George, but nor is he quite… Hastings enough. While he serves the purpose of getting the detective embroiled in the case in the first place (Hastings here is an old friend of Charles Leverson, who has invited him down to Abbott’s Cross for a golf tournament), the rest of the time he’s a bit too… dynamic for my tastes. He jumps straight into being a co-investigator, surveilling guests at their hotel, witnessing Lily’s delivery to Naylor, initiating a chase down to London and – inexplicably – knowing the train timetable off by heart. Shouldn’t Hastings be a bit less… you know… competent?

And on that note, I need to wrap this post up, as it’s ended up a lot longer than I intended (don’t they always?). Two final things:

Sadly, the loss of George from the adaptation means that my favourite scene from the story had to go. When Poirot decides to fabricate a bit of evidence proving that Lily went to Astwell’s study on the night of the murder, he tricks Gladys into letting him see her chiffon dress. He tears a tiny bit of fabric off, but in order to make it incriminating, he needs to make it blood-stained. Ever the martyr, he decides to use his own blood – and asks George to sterilize a needle and stab him in the finger. I don’t know which bit is weirder – Poirot’s screaming in pain at a tiny pin prick, or George’s unquestioning acquiescence. It’s a shame that couldn’t have been included in the episode.


On the plus side, we do get a welcome return of one of my favourite of Poirot’s accessories: the walking stick telescope! The perfect way to watch Hastings score a hypnosis-induced hole-in-one!

Time to move on to an episode I adored when I first saw it… ‘The Yellow Iris’




* Ironically, this was another aspect of the BBC’s A.B.C. Murders that pearl-clutching critics raged about – Phelps’s version of Poirot is explicitly shown to have ‘experienced first-hand the horror and destruction of war with Germany’.